Sea burial is not Islamic, say clerics

Muslim clerics said yesterday that Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea was a violation of Islamic tradition that may further provoke militant calls for revenge attacks against American targets.

A wide range of Islamic scholars interpreted it as a humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed towards the holy city of Mecca.

Sea burials can be allowed, they said, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship.

“The Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don’t think this is in the interest of the US Administration,” said Omar Bakri Mohammed, a cleric in Lebanon.

A US official said the burial decision was made after concluding that it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the remains. There was also speculation about worry that a grave site could have become a rallying point for militants.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security matters.

President Barack Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial, and the Pentagon later said the body was placed into the waters of the northern Arabian Sea after adhering to traditional Islamic procedures aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

But the Lebanese cleric Mohammed called it a “strategic mistake” that was bound to stoke rage.

According to Islamic teachings, the highest honour to be bestowed on the dead is giving the deceased a swift burial, preferably before sunset. Those who die while travelling at sea can have their bodies committed to the bottom of the ocean if they are far off the coast, according to Islamic tradition.

“They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam,” Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s grand mufti, said about bin Laden’s burial. “If the family does not want him, it’s really simple in Islam: You dig up a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that’s it. Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances,” he added. “This is not one of them.”

Mohammed Qudah, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Jordan, said burying the Saudi-born bin Laden at sea was not forbidden if there was nobody to receive the body and provide a Muslim burial.

“The land and the sea belong to God, who is able to protect and raise the dead at the end of times for Judgment Day,” he said. “It’s neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive bin Laden’s body.”

Clerics in Iraq – where an offshoot of al-Qaeda is blamed for the death of thousands of people since 2003 – also criticised the US action. One said it only benefited fish.

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